July 26, 2018

Governing NGOs: A Challenge in Four Acts

Editor’s note: This full article appears in the Stanford Social Innovation Review; this excerpt is posted with permission.


Many boards experience friction as the organizations they govern mature from small teams associated with passionate founders and funders to professional groups powered by best practices. To succeed, they must evolve alongside their NGO (non-governmental organization).

NGOs are changing—and so must the dynamics of the board room.

It’s certain that the role NGOs play in the future will be vigorously contested. Citizen movements in America have proved powerful forces for change during the first two decades of the 21st century.

(Three) endemic sources of tension (exist) in NGO governance:

Who rules:

  • How should decision-making be apportioned between the board and NGO leaders?
  • Toward what healthy vision of board-management relations should NGO leaders and their boards aspire?
  • How can the leaders and the board best manage—and serve—each other?

These questions about organizational governance are almost universally relevant to organizations in the for-profit, government, and NGO spheres. Friction between a board and the leaders it oversees wastes time and energy, distracts an organization from its mission, and prompts high leadership turnover—an enduring problem in the NGO world.

NGO boards can stray too easily from the path of effective governance. Fortunately, it is possible for boards to recover their effectiveness.

In This Article

Professor of Practice of Public Policy
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Garrett 102